Hostel • Bar • Pitch & Putt Achill Island County Mayo Ireland

Valley House Hostel Achill Mayo

The Playboy and the Yellow Lady...
A History of The Valley House

The Valley House sits on the former estate of the Earl of Cavan, who built a hunting lodge there and visited often in the 1850's. Upon his death, the estate was sold to Agnes MacDonnell, a formidable and some would say eccentric, English landlady.

She ran the estate almost single-handedly as her barrister husband, John Randal MacDonnell, rarely visited from their home in London. Mrs. MacDonnell has been described as a "very handsome woman, with a fine head of red hair". She became known locally as "The Yellow Lady" and was considered a tough landlady who always collected what was due to her, either in cash or in kind.

Up until recently we had known of no photograph or portrait of her in existence. Fortunately, some of her relations (by marriage to John Randal MacDonnell) contacted us and sent us some photographs and a portrait of her and her husband.

The other main player in this story, James Lynchehaun, was considered a handsome man, some five foot ten
inches in height, significantly described by Agnes MacDonnell as "a fine, young, strong, dark, animal-looking man".

James LynchehaunJames Lynchehaun

He had a civilized and somewhat dapper appearance and was well educated by the monks at Bunacurry monastery in Achill. He taught national school for a time, but was sacked after he falsified the roll in order to increase his pay. He had at one time been a member of the Metropolitan Police Force in Manchester. He returned to Ireland after a number of exploits and was eventually employed by Mrs. MacDonnell as her land agent. He set up his home and a small grocery shop in two semi-detached cottages on The Valley House estate.

His salary as land agent was set at £15 a year, but his employment was short-lived and lasted only 3 months, after which he was given notice to quit. Through his knowledge of the law as a former police man, he hung on from court to court, further antagonizing his employer with each postponement. Mrs. MacDonnell finally threatened to treble his rent unless he gave up possession of the house.

What created such bitterness between Agnes and James? It may have simply been caused by bad business dealings or it may also have been based on a more personal relationship which soured. Lynchehaun later claimed that his actions were motivated purely by politics and carried out on behalf of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in order to run the English landlady off the estate. However, only the two people involved really know for sure. What we can be sure of is that this bitterness led to the attack on Agnes, and The Valley House, on an autumn night in 1894.

Click here for more images of Agnes and John Randal MacDonnell

The events of October 6, 1894

Agnes MacDonnell was alone in the Valley House with her little dog Tip on the night of October 6th, 1894 when the cry was raised in the village - "The big house is on fire!". It was the man who set that fire, James Lynchehaun, who appeared at the back door to lead Agnes MacDonnell from the flames. Instead he dragged her behind a haystack, where he savagely attacked her and left her for dead. Her injuries were so severe she was not expected to live. Her nose had been bitten off and she lost one eye as a result of the attack. For the remainder of her days she wore a silver plate over her nose and a veil over her face to hide her disfigurement.

Lynchehaun was arrested and taken to Castlebar jail, from where it was necessary to bring him back to the Valley on four separate occasions for Mrs. MacDonnell's depositions to be heard. This required a journey by rail to Mulranny and from there onwards by jaunting car. On the final trip, although handcuffed and escorted by two armed constables, Lynchehaun leapt off the car and disappeared into the darkness in the vicinity of his uncle's house, which was situated on the Mulranny side of Achill Sound. There his relatives prepared him to run. He reentered Achill by boat and subsequently went into hiding underneath the floorboards in the house of a friend. He remained there for three months, during which an army of 300 Royal Irish Constabulary policemen combed the island for him.

Agnes MacDonnell

John Randal MacDonnell

John Randal MacDonnell

Agnes MacDonnell Portrait

Portrait of Agnes MacDonnell

Agnes MacDonnell


Meanwhile, the government had put a price of £200 on his head, with Mrs. MacDonnell making it up to £300, while the locals where busy composing ballads to celebrate the confusion of the authorities. Eventually the fugitive was betrayed for the money and this time he was incarcerated in Maryborough jail in the midlands. After seven years incarceration there he once again managed to escape, this time clad only in his shirt and drawers.

His adventure ended in Chicago 82 days later where he was apprehended and there began the major political debate of the day, based on the efforts of the British authorities to have him extradited back to Ireland to finish paying for his crimes.The efforts of the British government failed, despite a retrial and a hearing in the Supreme Court, and Lynchehaun remained in America for many more years. At first popular with the expatriate community, he went into decline after Michael Davitt, whom he met in Cleveland at a public meeting, refused to shake his hand, saying "I will not shake the hand of a murderer".

Lynchehaun returned to Achill twice, once in 1907 disguised as an American tourist, and then in 1918 at which time he was arrested and deported. He is said to have died in Girvan, Scotland in 1937 when he would have been around the age of seventy-seven.

Valley House Gate Lodge

Click here to enlarge the picture

The Valley House gate lodge, guarded by the police,
with the burnt out shell of The Valley House in the background

If James Lynchehaun left his mark on American extradition law, he also left it in literature and song. The ballads of the day retold the story, as did J.M. Synge's play, "The Playboy of the Western World" which largely bases its main character, Christy Mahon, on Lynchehaun and his adventures. In 1986 James Carney's book, "The Playboy and the Yellow Lady" was published and this book chronicles the case in great detail.

Agnes MacDonnell made a slow and painful recovery from her terrible injuries. The burnt out shell of The Valley House had been rebuilt by 1902 and Agnes continued to live there until her death in 1923. The Gallagher family purchased the house in 1942 from Mrs. MacDonnell's son, Leslie Elliot.

Greta Scacchi as Agnes MacDonnell

Love & Rage film poster

In 1998, an Irish & German produced film,
"Love and Rage"
, based on the story of Agnes and Lynchehaun, was filmed on location at The Valley House and around Achill Island. It stars Daniel Craig and Greta Scacchi.


Select the Love and Rage Film TrailerView the Love and Rage Film Trailer

Click here for images of
Daniel Craig and Greta Scacchi in "Love and Rage".

Click here for the Love and Rage Film Page.


"This woman was endowed with splendid courage and vitality, though, poor wreck, she will live for a few and miserable years"
…Judge Gibson speaking of Agnes MacDonnell in 1895, when giving judgment on Lynchehaun. The judge was proved wrong however - she lived on another 28 years, dying on the 28th of May, 1923.

Ballads of the day written about James Lynchehaun:

Some years ago here in Mayo, We had a great outrage; A lady's place in Achill was almost set ablaze. The Lady too was cruelly used and taken was the man, to Castlebar Jail they did repair and bring brave Lynchehaun.

If you heard the murmuring on every barrack wall:
"Surely we will capture him, if he's not gone abroad. And even then, we'll have him still by extradition law, And surely we will chain him down for fear he'd climb the wall".

I'm Lynchehan, I'm Lynchehan, I am that very man, I'm Lynchehan, I'm Lynchehan, Let them catch me if they can.

The British forces can't do that Now since the chase began; Sure the people know where e'er I go, That I am Lynchehan

A cattle drover from Mayo, Was taken for me twice, Whilst I was looking at the foe, Sure this was very nice.

Some years ago here in Mayo,
They had a hunt before.
After years of trail they captured me
On Achill's rugged shore.

Three hundred warriors on my track,
Sure many a mile they ran,
O'er barren ground before they found
The Famous Lynchehan.